Much of the pre-match talk this week centred on how much Donegal would put into winning this league semi final fixture - would it be beneficial to go all the way to a league final only five weeks out from championship Sunday on May 17th? For long spells at Headquarters, Rory’s troops played some sumptuous attacking football and looked as if they meant business. However, once Cork realised that the back door protecting the Donegal defence had been left ajar and was missing its normal padlock, they put this game to bed.
Usually, a forward line as potent and as talented as Brian Hurley and Colm O’Neill would not be given anywhere near as much space as they got today but in a very open game, lacking any sort of intensity, they were afforded free rein.
The full back line had very little protection throughout the match, the McGee brothers and Paddy McGrath having trouble dealing with their direct opponents. It was strange to see a team cut through Donegal’s centre on so many occasions; regardless of the importance or otherwise attached to the game, conceding four goals is worrying - you can be sure Tyrone will see no such room in five weeks time.
Michael Murphy returned to the team after watching from the stand in MacHale Park seven days ago. The break didn’t do the maestro any harm as he posted a wonderful 0-8 comprised of three frees, two 45s and three points from play.
Michael’s return meant all three of the team’s danger men started and it was interesting to see Colm McFadden playing the deeper of the trio with the captain and Patrick McBrearty staying inside for much of the day. It’s a role that means a lot of work and effort but will be a big help in bringing McFadden’s fitness and match sharpness to where it needs to be. The Creeslough sharpshooter is still a long way short of his peak scoring form, a number of wides and a missed goal chance in the first half evidence of this. Two fine long range points though showed what he is capable of and they will have helped his confidence and no doubt he will be busting a gut over the coming weeks to try to secure a starting spot for the championship opener.
It was a disappointing week for the U21 contingent in the squad following their defeat against Tyrone on Wednesday night. Three of those lads started today – the McHughs, Ryan and Eoin, along with Hugh McFadden.
McFadden put in a big shift around the middle and has become a vital cog in Donegal’s turnover ploys. He twice won the ball back for his side early in the second half, the first from a block down at midfield which eventually led to a point from Murphy and the other a tackle that sent a Corkman over the line and gave Donegal a sideline kick.
Competition for starting places is fierce at present and it may well be that we won’t see both McFaddens in the line up in Ballybofey next month but Hugh has given himself a great chance to get a jersey.
Eoin McHugh got his first senior start at Croke Park and similar to his cousin Ryan two years ago he looks very nimble and light but has bags of ability. There is some bulking up to go through before he’ll fully settle in at senior level but even this summer he could be an effective weapon in Donegal’s arsenal.
While Donegal’s defence wasn’t what it normally is today, the forward unit can take a lot of positives from their exploits. Nineteen points is a great tally to post and will win most matches. The shooting was accurate, the interchange slick and the kick passing in particular into the full forward line was of the highest standard. Rory was of course a brilliant forward in his day and it’s clear he is having an effect in this regard on the training field.
Despite the massed defences of nowadays, a precise kick pass can still give a forward a chance to collect, turn and shoot in one movement and it is very hard to defend against. We saw examples of such passes today from Karl Lacey and Odhran MacNiallais while in the second game Conor McManus ran riot for Monaghan on such ball.
In contrast Cork, despite winning an All-Ireland in 2010, have taken quite a bit of criticism over the years over their hesitancy in getting ball into their myriad of deadly score-getters. Many of their attacks traditionally involved lateral hand passing and so many of their players were fond of soloing laboriously up the field even when passes were on. There has been a big improvement since Brian Cuthbert has taken the reins and much of their good play today came from direct ball carrying. They still though need to add a longer dimension to their game plan. Donegal didn’t play with an out and out sweeper today and there were times where McGrath and one of the McGees were two on two against Hurley and O’Neill – in this situation the ball must go in. Donegal carry the ball quite a bit and always have done but when they sense an opening inside the ball is delivered.
The absence of Neil Gallagher was acutely felt last week in Castlebar with Mayo’s Barry Moran enjoying a free run of the park and lording the middle third. With Gallagher again missing today, it was the turn of Fintan Goold to put in a big scoring performance from midfield; the Marcoom native finishing with 0-4 to his name.
On each occasion that Donegal looked to be getting back into the game and had a chance to reel in the Rebels, they conceded another major and the gap always remained. Goals have never been as important as they are these days; they’re much harder to get and are precious commodities in big games. Last year’s All-Ireland semi final and final involving Donegal are a case in point, so too the last few meetings between today’s other semi-finalists. In the quarter final meeting in August, Monaghan were well in the game until Bernard Brogan raised a green flag but after that they fell away. They conceded early again in last week’s meeting in Clones but today there was no goal concession and the Farney men were unlucky to lose by the minimum after a great display. Giving away four goals to top tier opposition like Donegal did only leads to one thing - defeat.
All in all though, both teams will be relatively happy with today and happy with their league campaigns. Cork have a final against Dublin in a fortnight’s time to bridge the gap to their inevitable annual joust with Kerry on Munster final day while Donegal have now no distractions and eyes only for Tyrone.
This league has seen newcomers make their bows for Donegal; some fringe players have pushed their way into the manager’s thoughts while the stalwarts are all, by and large, in good knick and the team as a whole looks like it means business in Championship 2015. Bring it on.